There was a sense of immense weariness on hearing that David Cameron had made a speech branding multiculturalism a failure last week. Weariness, because every right-wing PM makes noises about multiculturalism when they feel the need to shore up their base. Weariness because there was no sincerity to it. Cameron’s government is a bunch of soft, sweet-smelling men who live by focus group, and they wouldn’t have put their toe in the multiculti waters without testing it six ways from Christmas first.

Weariness also, because Cameron’s remarks followed a similar sally by Angela Merkel a couple of months ago, which earned similar hrumph hrumphs of pleasure — and he wouldn’t have done it if she had been shot down in flames. Weariness because Cameron made his remarks on the weekend of a huge English Defence League march in Luton. The EDL is a post-National Front nativist group, formed out of various white, working-class gangs; nu-style, they have black and Asian members and a GLBT section. Their obsessive focus is radical Islamism and lager. They have less in common with Cameron’s Notting Hill crowd than with Abu Hamza, but he needs to make some gestures to not be too far outflanked by them.

But weariness above all, because whatever people such as Cameron or Merkel or John Howard say about multiculturalism, they will never do anything about it. They may favour different peak bodies to Labour — Cameron will funnel money to the Sikhs and Hindus rather than Muslims — but they will continue to recognise, with money and political attentions, the idea that there are separate “communities” within a society, who have leaders who are somehow representative. They will meet with them, consult with them, run manifesto documents by them, grant them the right to speak for people who never selected them — and then go out and denounce multiculturalism to split Labour and the Left.

Above all, they will grant them the right to their own schools. This is the nub of the contradiction in the current right-wing brouhaha about multiculti. Though they profess to be concerned about the creation of communal sub-groups who have separate values and loyalties, they happily permit the creation of the one institution that guarantees that process — the school. Give me the child until he is seven … Currently, for example, rich Saudi Arabians run a bunch of schools across the UK. It’s already known that some of them teach a fairly, erm, distinctive theory of world history and the role of the Jews within it, but nothing has really been done about it.

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Why? Because the Cameron government’s passionate attachment is to the almost rule-free creation of “free” schools, by any group that can get together the scratch — fundamentalist Christians, educational corporations, brainless Grub Street bottom feeder journalists such as Toby Young and his mates, and so on. Though they will have to conform to minimum curriculum standards, the mania for free schools becomes the means by which multiculturalism will become further entrenched, and the notion of bounded communities within a wider society will be given a huge boost.

But that simply leads us deeper into this conundrum, and that is to ask what people are talking about when they talk about multiculturalism. The word has become so overlaid with multiple meanings as to have none at all. No one who criticises it ever seeks to define it, for quite deliberate reasons.

Say what you like about the hard Right, they are at least honest enough to say that they don’t want further immigration — and/or that they want to shape immigration intake with racial/cultural priorities. Such positions have the virtue of being consistent. The soft and centre-Right want to have it both ways. As neoliberals, they want plentiful flows of labour that can be switched on and off as the market demands. But an open statement of this would be unpalatable to much of the electorate. To deal with this, they spruik a myth of the fall, and of assimilation. Gerard Henderson gave an entirely predictable version of it in the SMH last week.

Once upon a time, the myth goes, immigration in the US, Australia and elsewhere, was conducted in perfect harmony. People came in, they left their cultures at the entry port, and a few funny foods aside, they took up the values and beliefs of the host country. Then, in the 1960s and ’70s, bad cultural relativist social scientists designed policies whereby people could keep their own beliefs and cultures when they came, and we would regard all cultures as equivalent. The result, the myth goes, has been chaos, division, hatred, ghettos, etc, etc.

Nothing of this myth is true. The huge US immigration intake from 1865-1924, produced whole communities entirely separate by language, culture, etc, and thoroughly ghettoised. Until the 1940s, most big US cities could support a daily paper in Yiddish, Polish, German, etc. Nor was there ever a single culture that has fallen into division. Until the postwar period, the great division in Australia was between Protestants and Catholics (or Romans, as my grandmother referred to them) — a division that produced riots, sectarian murder, social movements, political split, etc. This division only became sealed over when fresh divisions became possible as “new Australians” flooded in during the ’50s.

Effectively what happened was this: until the 1960s and ’70s, the influx of immigrants with significant cultural difference was so small that their different practices did not register. There have been Muslims, Chinese, etc groups in Oz since the 1860s — no one really gave a damn what arrangements they made in terms of marriage, child-raising, etc, until they became as numerous as to be visible. It is only when people want to build mosques, start community groups, etc, that the question of what a culture is becomes urgent.

In legal terms, we still live in a monocultural society — Muslim men can’t legally marry four women, Albanians can’t legally avenge a vendetta with murder and so on. It’s worth remembering in this debate that there have been genuinely multicultural societies — Istanbul/Constantinople before 1914 is an example — where such things were permitted according to the ethnicity of the people concerned. We are pikers compared to that robust sense of cultural difference, which has ruled cities as diverse as Tangier, Granada. Singapore and the like.

The plain fact is that when you start a process of mass immigration, your society is already multicultural, and it doesn’t matter what policies you propose, the place has become multiple. That’s particularly so because the country taking in migrants is cosmopolitanised, while the country that they’re leaving is usually not so — in effect the people arriving tend to carry with them a set of beliefs that are often exclusive, chauvinist and unique.

So they tend to come from cultures with strong meaning frameworks, to those in which the nihilistic effect of the market has worn away all meaning, leaving simply products and commodities. That’s one reason why the Right gets so antsy about migrants — they show up, and reproduce community, in a society that has been reduced to a cloud of atomised consumers by the Right’s own policies. No wonder they have such a fear of Muslims — they have a living culture with a genuine conception of the sacred, which is essential to any viable culture, and that has been lost to the West.

The anti-multicultural fantasy deployed by the Right presumes that people will simply surrender what they are, because they have taken the advantages of the global economy. Seriously, would you surrender a religion, a way of life, a code of honour, for … Two and a Half Men? Shane Warne? Gangajang? Of course not. It’s precisely because people travel the oceans, the world, that they keep their culture with them. Because it’s the only thing they can hold onto that allows people to remain full human beings, rather than labour units. If you want the products of their hands and brains, you have to accept the contents of their hearts as well.

There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of bogus bullshit going on with the funding of peak bodies — the council of this, the authority of that. Patriarchal elders putting themselves forward as spokespeople of people they’ve never met. If any government genuinely agreed to stop meeting with them and funding them, one would support them. But the Right will never do that. They will always suck up to “community elders”, grant them their power, give their schools the green light — and then denounce “relativism”.

As usual, it is up to the Left to define a form of citizenship that is neither “elder” multiculturalism nor a delusional monocultural fantasy. As a rough sketch one would suggest that this would be a position that combines a universal humanism with a social pluralism. That is to say, that within modernity it is impossible to accept that parents from subcultural groups — fundamentalist Christians, Orthodox Jews, some strands of Islam — should have the right to limit their childrens’ access to a wide repertoire of human possibilities. But once adults have taken on a set of beliefs — so long as they abide by a basic set of laws that guarantee social harmony — they should have the right to hold and express those beliefs not only unmolested, but also un-nagged by some whining notion of, in our case, “Australian values”.

That would mean a set of policies that neither Labor nor Liberal parties, nor Tories in the UK, are willing to contemplate. It would mean defunding peak ethnic bodies that purport to represent people who have never voted for them — while extending that funding to smaller groups, on the same basis that, say, lawn bowls groups get state funding, in the general recognition that supporting a multiplicity of cultural activities is a good thing.

But it would also mean cracking down on private schools and their curricula, and that is one thing that the Right will never have the courage to do. If you’re serious about having a society with some sort of shared basis — in pluralism, reciprocity, non-violence, science as a basis of policy, etc — then it’s schools that need to be attended to.

Of course, there is nothing, of itself, wrong with a monoculture — nor with attempts to maintain it (as long as it based on notions of culture not skin colour). Iceland, Finland, Aboriginal societies and countless others have the right to say that they would prefer to maintain a relatively culturally common society, and that that therefore involves a limit to who comes in and who stays. One of the errors of a certain type of left-liberalism is to suppose that a polycultural society is an inherent good. If a monocultural society shows reciprocal respect to other cultures and to guests, there can be no reasonable objection to its policies per se.

Yet more asinine than “compulsory polyculutralism” is the idea — a la Merkel — that multiculturalism has “failed”. To be sure, there’s a lot of low-level bad feeling between ethnic Germans, Turks, etc, and the latter remain pretty marginal. But given how Germany’s last experiment with enforced monoculturalism ended up, I would have said that the fairly crappy Germany of mild racial snobbery and a lot of kebab shops was a vast improvement, a place where everyone can make a life, albeit limited and unequal in many ways. It takes a pretty severe type of historical self-censoring to forget what the alternative has been — an example of the Western self-absolving narcissism common to all right-wing anti-multiculturalists.